Ethics in Ancient Israel

The foremost scholar on ethics in ancient Israel has recently published a book on the topic entitled (unsurprisingly) Ethics in Ancient Israel. John Barton has been working in the realm of ethics and the Old Testament since his dissertation days in the 1970s. His latest book is a much needed and valuable contribution to biblical studies.

Scholarship in ethics and the Old Testament typically take one of two forms: study of Israelite ethics (descriptive) or study of the Bible for ethical application in modern faith communities (normative). The first tends to be historical in its approach and the latter theological. Some scholars see a vast chasm between Israelite and modern ethics, while others find continuity. But, even those who find continuity (such as Christopher Wright) acknowledge that Christians and Jews today do not subscribe to all of the ethical perspectives of the Israelites. This is not so much the result of modern “enlightened” thinking as a difference in cultural circumstances. This of course begs the question, what does it mean for people of faith today who turn to Scripture for ethical guidance? Barton’s latest book does not answer that question directly (his approach is descriptive), but it provides a foundation for further inquiry.

In Ethics in Ancient Israel Barton does not unpack specific, concrete Israelite morality as much as he describes Israelite moral reasoning. How did they think about morality? Scholars have often denied the Israelites engaged in moral reasoning, assuming they simply obeyed divine commands whether or not such directives made sense. Moral reasoning is normally seen as the purview and contribution of the Greeks (e.g. Aristotle, Plato). Barton bucks this stereotype. The Israelites were not primitive barbarians, but quite thoughtful in their consideration of ethics.

The book is divided into ten chapters:

  1. The Sources. Barton believes all literary genres in the Old Testament can reveal aspects of Israelite moral reasoning. For example, while laws might indicate explicit ethics, narrative can convey ethical reasoning in an implicit manner. In fact, he compares Israelite narrative to ethical reasoning in Greek tragedy (ala Martha Nussbaum) and argues that the Israelites were more similar to Aristotle than Plato in promoting practical wisdom focused on particulars rather than universals. Narrative does not convey rules, but does explore specific problems, leading to moral insight.
  1. Moral Agents and Moral Patients: In this chapter, Barton asks who the Israelites believed had moral obligations (agents) and to whom were moral obligations due (patients). He explores whether or not the biblical authors viewed ethics as universal to all humanity or particular to themselves as chosen people of God. Did the Israelites believe they had moral obligations to non-Israelites, for example? Barton tends to see the biblical authors as leaning toward particularism, especially in times of struggle for survival. But he also sees evidence of universalistic thinking. For example, Job 31:13-15 makes an appeal to treat slaves well on the universal basis that slaves are human beings created by God. He also discusses moral obligations based on the individual, the collective, gender, class, etc.
  1. Popular Morality, Custom, and Convention: Was there a popular morality that differed from many of the biblical authors? In other words, does the Old Testament give an accurate account of what most Israelites thought and did ethically? Barton acknowledges the difficulty in trying to recover such a popular morality. But he appreciates Eichrodt’s view that popular morality existed that was later superseded, even if he questions Eichrodt’s assumption that the Israelites systematically developed from cruder to more enlightened covenant ethics. Barton borrows from Dover’s and Morgan’s works on Greek and Roman popular morality, especially considering speeches for clues. More specifically, he looks at the speeches of the biblical prophets. For example, what does Amos seems to assume his audience believed about war crimes? At the same time he also cautions that we cannot say for sure what group of people Amos is speaking to specifically. The ruling elite? Peasants? Whose ethics Amos seems to reflect depends on his specific audience. Barton also suggests the possibility that the Israelites who were condemned by the prophets were not an aberration. Rather, it was the prophets’ religion that was a fringe movement against the grain of common practice—including the practice of officials. He suggests morality became more regulated by Torah in the Second Temple period.
  1. The Moral Order: Barton list three primary models of Israelite ethics (natural morality, divine command, and virtue ethics). In this chapter he focuses specifically on “moral order” which is his preferred term for discussing concepts related to natural morality. In the past he was willing to use the phrase “natural law.” But, given its modern connotations, he has shied away from that. Nevertheless, he sees evidence that the Israelites based some of their ethics on what they understood about the “orders of creation.” Moral order is “built into the fabric of the world.” Thus some ethics conveyed in the Old Testament are not based on explicit rules or divine decree, but seem to be drawn from observation and applicable to all human beings.
  1. Obedience to God: The prevailing assumption about Israelite ethics has been divine command theory. The Israelites built their ethics on what God explicitly commanded, particularly the law codes. Barton agrees this is present in the Old Testament, but not by any means the only way the Israelites conceived of ethics.
  1. Virtue, Character, Moral Formation, and the Ends of Life: Barton sees virtue ethics as less common than natural morality and divine command, but still present. This involves moral training and the concept of moral progress. He acknowledges that the biblical authors seem to think more in categories of either good or bad rather than middle ground of formation. Yet, the Israelites did not conceive of ethics purely as behavior, but recognized that a person’s character affected their actions. There is evidence of introspection and the importance of moral formation.
  1. Sin, Impurity, Forgiveness: Some scholars have seen the ideas of impurity and defilement (e.g. don’t eat pork) as pre-moral or cultic laws not related to real ethics. Yet the categories of “taboo thinking” vs. “intentional thinking” both fell into the ethical sphere. And this is not simply ancient thinking. Orthodox Judaism still maintains these categories. That said, following Klawans, Barton sees a distinction between ritual and moral impurity. For example, only actions considered morally polluting are ever labeled as “abominations.” Also, ritual impurity is contagious (one can pass on uncleanness), but moral impurity is not. He would even expand beyond two categories of impurity—those that are a mixture. In this chapter, Barton also touches on concepts of intentional vs. unintentional sin, as well as the manner in which impurity and sin were dealt with (namely, sacrifice, repentance, and forgiveness).
  1. The Consequences of Action: Alongside the models of ethics, Barton suggests two primary attitudes toward sin and suffering. One that involved the Israelites’ belief in God’s intentional intervention—God caused disasters as punishment. And the other, that of automatic consequences that result from going against the moral order of creation. Thus, some punishment was understood to be built into the system, so to speak vs. direct action from God.
  1. Ethical Digests: Here Barton comments on digests, such as lists of vices and virtues. The Decalogue would be one example of a list. He also refers to summaries that don’t list sins or virtues, but explain them. These digests speak of “good” and “evil” broadly. The lists and summaries do not seem to be tied to a particular social context, but seem to be concise ways of summing up many different precepts into basic principles (think of how Jesus does this with loving God and neighbor). These seem to represent basic moral norms that are common in many cultures, and thus represent a meta-ethic beyond specific divine commands.
  1. The Moral Character of God: What did the Israelites believe about the moral character of God? Did they believe God is just? Barton discusses theodicy and how the Israelites explained suffering. One distinctive in Israelite thought is that such an explanation meant God was not capricious as often seemed to be the case of other ancient Near Eastern gods. God does not randomly inflict suffering, but must have reasons that are justified. Even when the suffering seems to defy a logical and just consequence, a rationale was better than no rationale. Yet, this God who is not capricious is also understood as one who can change his mind and exhibit human emotions, including anger. All this gets into the question of whether the Israelites had an ethic based on imitation of God, and if God is also bound to moral laws.

Barton’s work is unique. He is opening important doors for discussion of Israelite ethics. Knowing more about Israelite ethics is a helpful foundation for the secondary step of appropriating ethics for the faith community. Too often appropriative moves involve eisegesis; modern ethical perspectives are superimposed onto the text. This does not do justice to treating Scripture as sacred text. We have to first understand what the Israelites believed about how to discern the right way to live, and then determine what that means for how we think about the nature and function of Scripture for today.

Thanks to Oxford University Press who graciously supplied me a copy of this book upon my request so that I could review it.